Seth Rogen dons a sweater emblazoned with a giant Star of David, and immediately Jonathan Levine’s “The Night Before” is anything but subtle. Fans of Seth Rogen won’t be disappointed, but fans of nuanced wit or sophisticated humor will probably have more than few qualms with this raunch-fest. Those who just don’t appreciate man-child antics, dirty jokes or self-conscious ridiculousness should stick to the traditional Christmas selections to get in the holiday spirit.
Best friends Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Chris (Anthony Mackie) and Isaac (Seth Rogen) have spent every Christmas Eve together causing trouble in New York City since Ethan’s parents died in 2001. To add the requisite sense of urgency, and somehow legitimize the film’s antics, the three have agreed that this is their final Christmas Eve of debauchery. Isaac is on the brink of fatherhood, and Chris, a football player, is now “too famous” to go out thanks to steroids and social media. This year will be different, of course, because Ethan has managed to pilfer three tickets to the holy grail of New York Christmas parties — the Nutcracka’ Ball.
Before the party, the trio sets out to complete as many of their traditions as possible. All the while, Isaac consumes a cornucopia of drugs gifted to him by his wife Betsy (Jillian Bell). Of course this allows Seth Rogen to act perpetually high, which he does particularly well. The crew takes over a piano mat, like that from Tom Hanks’ “Big,” and performs Kanye West instead. They wear their tacky sweaters to dinner at their favorite Chinese restaurant. At their traditional karaoke bar, they encounter Sarah (Mindy Kaling) and Diana (Lizzy Caplan). Ethan, who remains the downer of the trio, still pines for Diana, who broke up with him after he refused to move the relationship forward.
As the evening progresses, the movie reveals a tongue-in-cheek strength beyond its outrageous jokes. It includes sharp references to some of the most popular Christmas classics. The connective thread of the narrative is the crew’s multiple encounters with Mr. Green (Michael Shannon), their high school weed dealer. In the style of “A Christmas Carol” he offers visions of the past, present and future from his appropriately junky car. Ilana Glazer, of “Broad City” fame, plays a street-smart grinch. These references, coupled with nods to “Home Alone” and even “It’s a Wonderful Life,” foment a sense of festive nostalgia that’s hard to resist.
The film’s ultimate turn toward earnestness, and the characters’ confrontations with their respective flaws, are predictable but tolerable. This is a ridiculous comedy, often lacking in real substance, but it doesn’t claim to be anything else. Some of the bits fall flat, but the film presses forward with relentless enthusiasm and festive cheer. This drug-fueled comedy trip is one you may not want to repeat, but one on which you can look back and laugh.
Contact Reed Canaan at rcanaan ‘at’ stanford.edu.